Monday, September 1, 2008

Today in Egypt - Episode One

Em hotep. I am Kem, high priest of the Temple of Osiris, in Alexandria, Egypt. This is my story.

I was an orphan who was taken in by one of the priests of the great god Thoth's temple at Khumn. His own son had died, and would have been about the same age as me, so he took pity on me. As I grew, the priest found that I was a clever boy. He decided to train me to make the sacred writing and adopted me as his own son. For many years I studied the many characters of the hieroglyphs until I was a fully trained scribe. I had learned much from my father, seeing that the priests' life was much better than most in the land of Egypt, so I decided to become a priest. I studied for many years and slowly advanced in the priesthood. I dressed and fed the statue of the great god in the temple at Khumn. When Alexander conquered Egypt he renamed the city Hermopolis after the god Hermes, who the Greeks identify with Thoth.

Though they are foreigners the Greeks expanded Hermopolis and made it a luxurious city. All the nobles of Egypt would come there. One day Alexander's successor Ptolemy, who the Greeks call saviour, came to Hermopolis. He came to the temple and while he was there his scribe was taken ill. I was called to attend to his writing. As I was writing a letter for him he made a mistake, and I corrected him. He laughed so heartily, and said that no one ever told him when he was wrong. He said men who would speak the truth to him were more valuable than gold and he decided I should return with him to Alexandria. He also said if I corrected him when others were present he would feed me to the jackals. From that day on I have lived in Alexandria, and now I am a High Priest in the Temple of Osiris in the great Greek city. I am a lector priest, my job is to see to the training of the priests. Though I am still called to the Pharaoh when he feels that there is something that people around him are not telling him.

Apart from these times when Ptolemy calls for my honesty, I seldom leave the temple. I always have my nose in the scrolls and my students call me the grumpy one. They think I do not know this, but there is little that escapes my attention, within the temple bounds anyway.

Monday, July 28, 2008

The Most Fabulous Object in the Universe.

Now everyone knows I am a bit of a techno toys aficionado, and today I found a techno gadget that sent me into paroxysms of delight... and consumer lust, a fair bit of that too. Now we all know that mind activated computing is possible. And you have probably seen reports of its use in helping disabled people control computers and fighter pilots control targeting systems, but now mind control has hit the consumer market, well almost. The device in question is the Emotive EPOC, and I most definitely, really want one, but I will have to wait, as it is not set to be released until the end of this year.

Here is a kool photo of the EPOC looking very much like the 'SQUID' from the awesome scifi movie Strange Days. Which makes me wonder how long it will be until they really can record one's experiences.

What does it do? Well it allows you to control your computer by thinking about it. Which is incredibly kool, in itself, but wait there's more. Where it will be amazingly useful in virtual worlds is that it relays your facial expression to your avatar in real time. You smile and your avatar smiles at the same time. Moreover it will move your avatar's head as you move your head and, this bit is a bit spooky, "infer your emotional state". The nice Australian (cummon aussie cummon, cummon) lady explains in a video on the website that this might be useful for altering game play to take better advantage of the players emotional state. Which (to my twisted mind) translated to, give people a chance to scare the bejesus out of you when you least expect it. I never played much Quake, but it left its mark.

This device is amazingly similar to an idea I had for my PhD, which involves real time animation of avatars, not just expressions and head movement, but every body movement. This came about when thinking about the differences one encounters between doing rituals in VW and RL. I posit that there is a causal relationship between the degree to which an experience is immersive and the perception of the participant that the ritual works. Not that it was very hard to posit that really. Common sense actually. Anyway, if one can increase the immersiveness (neologism of the day) of the experience, then one can test this theory. This will enable exploration of the idea of what shared space is. Imagine a bunch of people, geographically widely dispersed and each wearing an apparatus that exactly duplicates their movements and facial expressions onto avatars in a VW, and also 'intuits their emotional state" while they do rituals simultaneously in the VW and in RL. Does this constitute a shared ritual space? If so, where exactly is the space they are sharing? And what does this do to our conception about how rituals work?

Oh, and if you don't get the culture reference in the title, you obviously haven't watched Time Bandits... Go and watch it immediately.

Morgan Leigh

Friday, July 25, 2008

Deeply Disturbed by Lively

I checked out Lively today, and ended up deeply disturbed.

On arriving at I discover that it is yet another brick in the wall of total Google domination. One has to sign up for a Google account before one can download the software. Yet another account and password to remember. Great. Having installed the software, with no option to start it straight after installation, I fire it up, keen to check out a new virtual world and arrive at... a web page? Ok, not what I was expecting. On this web page there is a list of ostensibly 'popular rooms'. "What's a room?" I find myself asking. A quick squiz seems to indicate that they are places one can enter, each with a particular theme. Many of these themes are related to sex. Not being one of those people who read the instructions first, I proceed to click on a likely looking 'room'. Science Fiction. Should be mostly harmless... Might even have conversation on a topic of interest to me. I click and arrive at, another web page. A web page with incredibly loud Star Trek music. Then what I guess is a 'room' materializes.

I am prompted to select an avatar. Not much customization possible. Having selected Jane Doe, I enter to find I am a very perky young woman, and I am in a phone booth. In fact I seem to be imprisoned in the phone booth. I mouseover things, click things, double click things, right click things. Still stuck in the phone booth. I notice speech bubbles in the room, strange disembodied speech bubbles whose point of origin is beyond my view, and so I try the chat box. "How do I get out of this phone box?" One of the mysterious disembodied chat bubbles says "Never get out of the phone box". Is this a warning or a forecast of perpetual imprisonment? Eventually I am cast out of the phone box. I'm not sure if it was something I did or just random luck.

Ok, now how do I move around? I mouse over my avatar and find a four pointed arrow appears, along with some helpful (?) text that says "Welcome to SCiENCE FiCTION... [Hint: There are more places down below. Double cl..." and there it is cut off by the edge of the room. Perhaps if I move I can see all the text? That's when I discover that the place is full of teenagers. Their patois revealing their demographic. The disembodied chat bubbles contain a lively banter composed almost entirely of 'lol', 'later', 'sweet' and 'hi' strung together in various ways. Not a promising start.

I try walking, and I discover why this place is perfect for teenagers. Everything revolves around me. If I hold my left mouse button down and move the mouse, I get a rotating view, centered on me. I still can't see any other avatars so I ask "Where are you all?" "We are over here" - useful. Not. - "lol" "Jump off the edge". "lol". "Sweet". "lol". Note to self. Keep away from the edge. I discover that I can double click on the ground and I will move along. I start walking around checking things out. There's some furniture, what's seems to be a screen for watching things on and a cute cauldron. I take a close look at the cauldron. It seems to be shaking. Then I find if I right click on it a menu comes up. I select the 'play animation' option and the cauldron leaps into the air with a squeal of fright and begins scuttling around as if Beelzebub himself is chasing it. Then it stops and sits there shuddering. Ok... Suddenly Jane Doe is accosted by a male avatar. Someone is kissing my avatar! And she's kissing him back! How can I stop this invasion? Turns out I can't. I figure abuse will only exacerbate the situation, so I ignore it. Now they are holding hands. Now they are... What is that they are doing? I go away and make a cup of tea hoping it will all be over when I get back. But I feel like my personal space has been intruded into. I know Jane Doe is only a graphic on a screen. But in some way she is me. I know its weird, and intellectually I can make the separation between myself and the girl on the screen, but I feel violated.

Jane Doe ponders the pig's predicament.

Settling down again with my nice, hot cup of tea, I notice a cute looking pig in a glass enclosure. I move closer and see he is not a happy looking pig. This is where things start to go really downhill. In my naivety I right click on the pig, thinking the animation might let the pig out of the jar. He is clearly not happy being in there. Then I notice the object is called 'Piggy Bomb'. Ok... maybe it will explode and release the pig? I start the animation. What happens next is ten seconds of sheer terror. Red spikes shoot out of the side of the pig bomb. The pig's eyes bulge in terrified anticipation. Clearly it is aware something very bad is about to happen. It starts running around in circles in the enclosure. After that, well I just can't bear to write about it. Watch the video. Stunned at the outcome I say to the room "This Pig Bomb is totally sick!". The room replies "Yeah isn't it great!", "Sweet", "Isn't it good". Terrified cauldrons. Exploding pigs. Teenagers into animal torture. Clearly this is not the world for me.

Morgan Leigh